Carnival of Souls does not have much going for it. There's the cheesy title, a definite strike against it, followed closely by its director Herk Harvey, better known for making simplistic mental hygiene films designed to drum good manners into 1960s schoolchildren. Then there's the low special effects budget, which means that the creepiest things our protagonist experiences is attack of the pancake make-up and occasional periods where the soundtrack just fades to silence.
I'm happy to report, though, that Carnival of Souls rises above these limitations to be a surprisingly effective, almost existential, horror film.
It follows the hallucinatory aftermath of a car crash. Mary is the sole survivor. She attempts to start a new life as a church organist in a new town, but a deathly face keeps appearing in her mirror. Plus the guy across the hall in her boarding house keeps leering at her. And occasionally she goes deaf to the world around her, as if she doesn't exist. Somehow, all these events connect to a mysterious abandoned carnival outside of town. Because the stripped-down production values focus so much on the actors, the film has an air of realism and believability, combined with intimacy, that allows the viewer to get inside Mary's introverted, detached, increasingly panicked state of mind. Candace Hilligoss' performance, much more nuanced and closer to Method acting than things of this period usually are, also helps. The film invites the viewer to identify with her so that the simple, predictable plot gains much more visceral punch.
I refuse to provide spoilers, although it's evident to anyone with half an episode of Twilight Zone under his or her belt what's going on...and I think Twilight Zone is the key reference for this movie; Carnival of Souls really reminded me of that episode where that guy is alone in a ghost town, chasing telephone rings and smoking ashtrays in an attempt to find another living person. Carnival of Souls takes a simple twist and spins it out, sustaining it for an hour and a half so that it can linger on character development and mood. As Carnival of Souls dwells on Mary's isolation and confusion, it becomes rather philosophical; she laments her inability to connect with others to such an extent that her anomie turns into existentialism. Because the viewer identifies so closely with Mary, her feelings of invisibility and pointlessness become ours. The movie seems to point out that you can't outrun death; you can't ignore it; you must face it, recognize it, because it's the only thing that gives our lives boundary and poignancy.